By Michael Howell
As of Tuesday, April 6 at 7 a.m., Ravalli County Airport was officially shut down for construction of a new runway and is expected to remain closed through June 30, 2021. Runway 17-35 is scheduled to open July 1, but some partial/short term closures can be expected through October. The new 5,200-foot runway is situated further east and further north than the old runway, which will serve as a taxiway under the new design. One problem the airport faced was that the existing taxiway was located too close to the hangars and other structures.
As far as Airport Manager Page Gough and Chairman of the Airport Board Ken Weinheimer can remember, the airport has never been shut down for more than a day or two for some sort of repairs. “Closing down for almost three months is a really big deal,” said Weinheimer.
The deal has been a long time coming. County Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows said the idea of constructing a new runway has been in discussion for decades.
“I remember one of the first things I did as a commissioner, eight plus years ago, was to decide what alternative to choose from the Environmental Impact Statement,” said Burrows. “It’s nice to see it come to fruition.”
According to Burrows, the airport improvements are going to benefit the whole community. He said the Forest Service has been using the airport, but at times had to limit themselves to carrying partial loads of fire retardant due to the short length of the existing runway. He said construction of the new runway has allowed the Forest Service to expand its operation at the airport. The agency is getting a big block of land just north of their current facility to establish a permanent base of operation for providing regional firefighting services. The site will contain multiple helicopter pads.
“It would be great to have that response available locally,” said Burrows. “One very important thing about the whole project,” he added, “is that it’s coming at no cost to Ravalli County taxpayers,” referring to the fact that the entire $12 million project is being paid for by federal funds collected from airplane fuel taxes.
Years were spent discussing how to come up with a 10% match for the project estimated at $12 to $15 million. At one point a private group supporting the airport agreed to guarantee the match. But the cost was finally picked up by the federal government itself with supplemental funding.
Chairman of the Airport Board Ken Weinheimer said that by moving the runway northward the airport was hopefully becoming a better neighbor to those people living south of the airport. He said the 1,000-foot move northward would reduce noise over the area south of the airport. Airport Manager Page Gough said that during the planning process the airport had the sanitarian’s office look into the location of residential wells in the area and they found that there were close to 200 wells south of the airport and only five on the north. He felt like the move was the best thing for the most people in the area.
Both men emphasized that much more was involved in the project than simply constructing a longer runway in a new spot. They said the whole infrastructure was crumbling and needed to be replaced.
Improvements include a new lighting system. The old one would sometimes fail in wet weather. Decrepit tarmac and taxiways are being refurbished. A state of the art weather station is being installed. Wildlife fencing is being installed around the entire airport perimeter. There will be better access to the existing hangars and room created for possibly an additional 50 hangars.
Both men had nothing but praise for S K Construction, the company that is doing the construction work and actually started on it at the end of last year.
“They kept us up and running for as long as they could before they just had to shut it down,” said Weinheimer.
Some businesses at the airport will continue to operate through the closure doing things such as maintenance work that might ordinarily be done in the winter.
Gough noted that the improvements and the lengthening of the runway will not open the airport to commercial air traffic. He said the classification of planes allowed to land at the airport will not change.
“There will be no commercial airlines landing at this airport due to these changes,” Gough emphasized.
According to Stevensville Airport Manager Tim Smead, they are ready to take on any overflow in air traffic that may come about due to the closure of the Hamilton Airport. He said Choice Aviation, which is based in Hamilton, would be setting up temporary shop at the Stevensville Airport during the closure to help service the potential increased traffic.
Michael Howell can be contacted at [email protected]